Dishes to have with that cold beer

Cooking might be something you want to avoid in the white heat of a Shanghai summer, but there are techniques that can cut down on kitchen time.
SSI ļʱ

Summer in Shanghai can be excruciating: endless heat waves, humid air and blinding sunlight.

Cooking in the summer is something many people wish to avoid, and many people wish to eat some strong-flavored yet chilled dishes to boost the appetite and spirit.

This week, we introduce three techniques to make delicious dishes and snacks that require minimum time in the kitchen, and are perfect to pair with cold beer or chilled rice wine.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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A platter of braised dishes

Zaolu, the summer remedy

Zao, a food preparation technique in the Jiangnan region (south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River), is a solution to the reduced appetite in the hottest summer months.

Making zaolu dishes is fast and simple. Cooked and chilled meat, vegetables and seafood are soaked in a brine or sauce called zaolu to absorb the salty and rich flavors.

Zaolu is made with the sauce extracted from aged distilled grain and then seasoned with spices and herbs.

A classic zaolu platter often features edamame, shrimp, duck tongue, peanut and goose feet, it can be served as an appetizer or snack to accompany movie and game nights.

There are two types of zaolu, the classic flavor and the spicy variety for those who favor some extra kick. Both have a strong rice wine fragrance and high level of salt, so it’s not something one should consume in large quantities.

Edamame, the fresh green soy bean in a pod, is an all-time favorite in making zaolu, which can be simply boiled in water until fully cooked and then soaked in the zaolu brine for a couple of hours. A necessary step is to cut off the two pointy ends of the pod so the flavors can get inside.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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Duck tongues, edamames and river shrimps are the classic trio in zaolu dishes.

Pork trotter is a fatty yet flavorful ingredient that can be used in zaolu as well. High-quality pig trotter should have minimal smell and residual hair. After cutting it in big chunks, the pig trotter should be blanched in water first, then stewed with ginger, scallions and bay leaf on a low heat for an hour to fully cook — the meat should be able to break from the bone yet still maintain an al-dente texture.

The pig trotter chunks are immediately chilled in iced water to stop them cooking, then soak them in the zaolu brine in a clean glass container in the fridge overnight.

Seafood, from shrimps to clams, are great ingredients for zaolu dishes. They can be cooked in lightly seasoned water briefly and then chilled in ice to keep their bouncy texture.

Different ingredients are soaked in the very salty brine for different length of time — the goose feet can take four hours up to overnight in the fridge, while the edamame and seafood only requires a couple of hours.

Another classic zaolu dish is tender fish slices, which are coated with starch and egg white, then stir-fried with ginger, scallions, salt and sugar, a little bit of zaolu sauce is added in this step, which gives the dish the rich and umami wine flavor.

Braise

Almost all meats, from light-flavored lean cuts to rich offal, can be braised and soaked in spiced stock to create a mouthwatering cold snack.

There’s no definite rule on creating the lushui stock, most of the time it’s a random combination of dried spices and herbs: star anise, clove, bay leaf, peppercorns, dried chilis and more.

Ginger, however, is a must-have in the recipes since it can effectively remove the unpleasant meaty smell. The roots of cilantro and scallions can also boost the flavor.

Red meats, in particular, are first boiled in water with slices of ginger and some cooking wine until the color changes, this removes the excess blood and residue from the meat so the flavor is clean.

Ingredients such as liver can be soaked in cold water for a couple of hours before being cooked in the stock, an extra step to remove blood as well.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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Braised chicken legs

If you are looking for a shortcut, bottled lushui sauce can be found in supermarkets, simply adding water in the right proportions can create ideal snacks. But be aware that these products are very salty and ingredients shouldn’t be left in the stock for too long.

Tofu products such as suji, a vegan soy product that imitates chicken, xianggan, a dense and flat braised tofu, and baiye, bean curd sheet, can all be stewed in the spiced stock. It’s important to keep an eye on the soy products to avoid overcooking and loss of the al-dente texture.

Hard-boiled eggs can be braised in the stock with other meats and tofu products after removing the shells. The stock will not only infuse the eggs with more flavors, but also darken the color of the egg white. The eggs are cut in half or quarters to serve alongside other meats.

Because braising foods in stock requires a certain amount of cooking time to infuse the flavors into the ingredients, not a lot of vegetables can be prepared this way. Vegan options normally include root vegetables such as lotus root, or meaty mushrooms like shitake and abalone mushrooms.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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Braised beef tripe

The drunken delights

Raw crabs and shrimps infused in rice wine or hard liquor are traditional Shanghai delicacies. These drunken dishes can be made with freshwater or seawater ingredients, and the crabs or shrimps are alive when they are soaked in a rich brine.

A typical recipe for drunken crab or shrimp is rice wine, salt, sugar, light soy sauce, chilis plus a large amount of ginger and garlic. The crabs are sealed in container overnight.

Qiangxia is a variation of the drunken dishes that uses small, live shrimps, which are rinsed and directly soaked in Chinese white liquor of high alcoholic content. After the shrimps are motionless, a dressing of minced garlic, sugar, soy sauce, chilis, cilantro and more is mixed into the shrimps.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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Qiangxia

The flavor of the raw crab and shrimp dishes is strong, and people who didn’t grow up eating them can feel an intense fishiness. The flesh is almost jelly like, and they are best served chilled.

Raw crabs and shrimps also pose food safety risks, so restaurants aren’t allowed to sell raw freshwater dishes.

A safer way to enjoy drunken dishes is to use cooked crabs and shrimps. The fresh ingredients are simply boiled in water or steamed to cook, then immediately chilled in iced water to preserve the flavor and texture.

The large freshwater shrimps are better than the smaller ones in this recipe.

On the side, pour a bottle of light soy sauce in the pot and season with bay leaf, peppercorns, rock sugar, clove, star anise and preserved plum (or dried tangerine peel), when the sugar melts and the aroma of the soy sauce is strong, pour a bottle of common rice wine, turn off the heat and cover the pot. That way, the alcohol won’t be lost in the cooking.

The chilled crabs and shrimps are then soaked in the brine when it reaches room temperature. Seal in a container and let time do the work.

It takes at least overnight to make drunken crab, but a few hours is sufficient for the smaller shrimps. The flavor of the brine is salty and sweet, which complements the natural sweetness of the crabs and shrimps.

Dishes to have with that cold beer
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Drunken cooked crabs

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